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Posted by on May 14, 2009 in Politics, Religion, War | 13 comments

Why Obama Had to Nix Release of Detainee Photos

“God save me from my enemies…and from my friends.”

The prayer is attributed to Martin Luther, but it might well fit President Barack Obama’s mood as he ponders recent statements made by some of his fellow liberals.

They’re hot over Obama’s decision not to release photographs of alleged terrorist detainees taken during the Bush Administration. The assumption is that the pictures will buttress the belief that under Bush, the US engaged in criminal interrogation techniques….

There is reason to believe that’s true and I’ve previously explained why, both as a Christian and an American, I find anything that smacks of torture completely abhorrent and never acceptable.

But, for several very practical reasons, even if his Justice Department and White House staff were to determine they had airtight cases against Bush, Vice President Cheney, or other members of the previous administration, the President cannot pursue such cases. Nor can he release the detainee photographs, at least at this time.

There are three main reasons for saying this, two of which have already been discussed a lot in the media. First: Obama’s impending speech seeking to convince Muslims that the US war against terrorists is not a war on their religion. The photos might so inflame peoples and governments as to negate the president’s new initiative before it gets started. Second: As some conservative supporters of the President’s decision, particularly the families of military servicepeople, have pointed out, release of the photos might endanger military personnel, the vast majority of whom have had nothing to do with questionable interrogation techniques.

But there’s a third reason, a political one, and it’s one that the President’s supporters would do well to consider, I think. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama promised a different kind of politics, not necessarily post-partisan, but respectful and substantive.

The appeal of that promise is obvious. For the past forty years, going back at least to the paranoid Nixon Administration’s enemies lists and dirty tricks, politics has become something like a bloodsport. Many political clashes have become unsavory legal ones, with partisan gridlock the reigning reality in Washington. Meanwhile, many obvious problems have been either ignored or given “a lick and a promise” treatment. While probably not fully prepared for the sacrifices necessary to address our past-due problems, many Americans were ready for the different approach that Obama intimated and so, voted for him.

The simple political fact is that a Democratic president cannot, at least at this time, take a former Republican Administration to court. Nor can a Democratic Obama administration press the case against the Republican Bush administration in the court of public opinion through the release of detainee photos.

Either action, irrespective of the merits of any allegations against members of the Bush Administration, will be interpreted as politics as usual and so, harm the Obama Administration’s capacity to pursue the agenda it was sent to Washington to pursue.

If John McCain had been elected president last November, the story would be substantially different. In spite of misgivings about McCain held by his fellow Republicans, he would be freer than Obama, as president, to pursue legal proceedings against Bush Administration officials, if the evidence warranted it, and to release detainee photos. In fact, there would be greater demand for these actions from a Republican administration because the charge of cover-up would be entirely plausible.

There’s a bit of an “only Nixon could go to China” air about this entire matter. In Washington’s partisan kabuki dance, you expect Democrats to oppose the actions of Republican Administrations. And, in the virulent politics of the past forty years, you expect partisans to clash in court. I don’t know what the statutes of limitations are on charges of torture. But supporters of President Obama would do well to be satisfied with their president’s new policies on torture and his announced intention of shutting down Gitmo, policies that will affect the future, rather than demanding that he splinter their winning coalition by insisting that the President dwell in the past.

A time may come when allegations of past torture can or should be pursued. But for now, Obama has bigger fish to fry. His supporters should know that.